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3 New Species Discovered in Australia's 'Lost World'

Earlier this year, scientists set out to explore a place where few humans have tread: the rain forest of Australia's Cape Melville Range. Surrounded by massive boulders, the mountain range has been largely cut off for millions of years and is home to at least six unique vertebrate species that have evolved insolation. Three of those species were discovered during this year' scientific trek. The project was funded by the National Geographic Expeditions Council. (Image credit: Tim Laman/National Geographic)

During an expedition last March to a remote part of northeastern Australia, where few humans have tread, scientists discovered three unique species of vertebrates: an impressively camouflaged leaf-tail gecko, a golden-colored skink and a rock-loving frog.

The researchers were exploring the rain forests on top of the Cape Melville Range, a 9-mile-long (15 kilometers) mountain range located on Australia's Cape York Peninsula, which juts out just south of Papua New Guinea. Surrounded by nearly impassable chunks of granite, the misty region has been cut off for millions of years and dubbed a "lost world," according to National Geographic, which funded the expedition.

"Finding three new, obviously distinct vertebrates would be surprising enough in somewhere poorly explored like New Guinea, let alone in Australia, a country we think we've explored pretty well," biologist Conrad Hoskin of James Cook University in Queensland said in a statement. [See Images of the Lost World Species]

The species have developed some unusual features to adapt to their isolated environment.

"You might wonder how a frog's tadpoles can live in a 'hollow' boulder-field with no water sitting around," Hoskin said. "The answer is that the eggs are laid in moist rock cracks and the tadpoles develop within the eggs, guarded by the male, until fully-formed froglets hatch out.

Hoskin explained that this frog, which was named Cophixalus petrophilus, spends most of its life in the dark, cool and moist environment deep inside the boulder-fields, only emerging on the surface when it rains.

The leaf-tail gecko's huge eyes are an adaptation to help it see in the dark cracks between boulders. (Image credit: Tim Laman/National Geographic)

The relatively large leaf-tailed gecko (Saltuarius eximius), measuring 8 inches (20 centimeters) in length, has heavily camouflaged skin that allows it to hide on rocks and trees and ambush passing prey like insects and spiders. The creature's eyes are also very large so that it can see inside the cracks of dimly lit boulder-piles as it hunts, and its long legs seem well adapted for climbing around on rocks, the researchers said.

The new species of skink — dubbed Saproscincus saltus — has unusually long limbs, as well, which it uses for running and jumping across its rocky environment.

The discoveries mean that there are now six known species of vertebrates known to be unique to the Cape Melville Range (three frogs, two skinks and one gecko), the researchers say.

Hoskin said the discovery of the gecko was the highlight of the expedition.

"The Cape Melville leaf-tailed gecko is the strangest new species to come across my desk in 26 years working as a professional herpetologist," he said in a statement. "I doubt that another new reptile of this size and distinctiveness will be found in a hurry, if ever again, in Australia."

The finds were described this month in the journal Zootaxa.

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Megan Gannon
Live Science Contributor
Megan has been writing for Live Science and Space.com since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.